"The Grapes of Wrath" and Kern County have a rocky history.
Think Bonnie and Clyde, Trump and McCain, or Custer and Crazy Horse.
Fortunately, the relationship has mellowed with age, and many locals now view John Steinbeck's masterpiece as a family story — and a powerful and deeply affecting tale of Kern's rich history.
Now an ambitious stage version of the epic is coming to a theater near you. "The Grapes of Wrath" is set to open Friday evening at the Ovation Theatre in downtown Bakersfield, and will continue through Aug. 4.
"The script (written by Frank Galati) is theatrical, but it stays very close to the book," said producer and Ovation co-founder Hal Friedman. "It's a very well-known adaptation."
Holding to the simplicity and directness of the original novel, the play uses the sparest of technical means to convey its message of the persistence and strength of the human spirit as it battles against the adversities of nature and an uncaring society.
Friedman and Director John Spitzer didn't take the easy road on this local version of the Tony-winning play. They scouted several locations in Kern County to bring both realism and the right mood to the set.
They settled on film projection as a tool to help show the Joad family's journey from Dust Bowl Oklahoma to a farm labor camp in Weedpatch, southeast of Bakersfield.
And while it's not a musical, Spitzer said, music helps tell the story, and two musicians, Scott Beaton and Dominic Demay, help bring it to life.
"The music helps provide the atmosphere of the era," Spitzer said.
"We went pretty deep."
With some 63 roles performed by about 25 different actors, the cast worked very hard, Friedman said.
"There is regional dialect, and it is tough," he said. "We wanted the right Oklahoma accent. There are intricacies. It's not just a Southern accent, it's Oklahoma."
Though fictional, Steinbeck's novel was rooted in real events. When thousands of migrant farmworkers arrived in Kern County, they were not often welcomed. When Steinbeck's book was published in 1939, some denounced him as a Communist. Area farming interests often viewed his favorable portrayal of labor unions as dangerous.
That year, the Kern County Board of Supervisors banned the novel from local libraries and schools.
It's all part of the complex history of Kern County and California.
"It's about people and family," Friedman said. "It's about finding your place in America."